Not ‘Eureka’, but ‘That’s funny…’

Sometimes, science can feel like a joke. Experiments don’t work, simulations produce physically impossible outcomes, and a question that you thought would take two weeks to answer instead can take two years. All too often we hide the messiness of science, presenting progress as linear rather than admitting the missteps and follies along the way. But surprises and setbacks shape the story of science as a human endeavor, and if we are unwilling to share this side of science, to laugh at ourselves, we risk alienating society from science altogether.

You might be thinking, but science isn’t funny, it’s an important and serious business! In my view, that is exactly why we should find the humour in it. Scientific progress saves lives, and technological advances improve quality of life across the globe. This means that public understanding of and participation in science has never been more important, especially as scientific issues such as climate change and energy usage increasingly impact politics and people worldwide. Research in education tells us that playful approaches to learning information can actually aid in retention and understanding, so educators now encourage learners to generate their own content on a topic – to be able to tell a story. Or write a joke.

Áine Gallagher combining research and comedy at Bright Club Ireland.

What is a joke, after all, but a surprising reversal, a change in viewpoint that completely reframes the information that came before? These sorts of reversals happen in science all the time, and scientists are used to having their viewpoints upended by new data. In fact, many of the skills that are important in science are also important in writing comedy: creativity, a willingness to upend the status quo, and indeed a subversive approach to authority in pursuit of a deeper truth. But more importantly, consider the audience. When a person listens to a joke, they are waiting for the other shoe to drop and the punchline to be revealed: they are waiting to change their mind. In this era of polarized news and information bubbles, what other approach to communication of complex ideas could possibly be more powerful than comedy?

It is this ethos that underlies Bright Club, a series of variety nights combining academic research and stand-up comedy. I have run Bright Club events in Ireland since 2015, training researchers from science, social science, and humanities and bringing them together with comedians and musicians for thought-provoking shows. The Bright Club format itself was pioneered in the UK by Steve Cross in 2009, and Bright Club events now take place in many European countries. Before each event, academics are trained in stand-up comedy techniques, a skill set which they often find useful in teaching and other science communication events.

In the 60+ events our Bright Club team has held in Ireland, which take place in informal spaces from pubs to music and comedy festivals, we have found an audience which is diverse and excited to hear from academics who reject the notion of the ivory tower. The talks are always engaging and the interdisciplinary nature of the events helps connect science to the broader constellation of human knowledge, drawing in people from all walks of life. We’ve also found that speakers who take part in Bright Club find comedy empowering: not only does it help them to communicate more accessibly, without jargon, but it helps them to communicate authentically, to find their own voices and their own unique perspectives on their own research. Participation in public engagement events like Bright Club often leads to a strengthened sense of agency and scientific identity, but the use of humour adds an extra level to this by allowing researchers to connect their professional selves to their personal selves. Audiences see researchers in their full humanity, and researchers often report that Bright Club is the first time they have felt that this humanity could be part of their work.

Comedians and academics from all fields, after a Bright Club event.

Science affects all of society, and hence it is of critical importance to bring researchers into public spaces to engage the public with what they do. Comedy is an invaluable tool for engagement, not least because the audience response adds the element of dialogue. Researchers report that the laughter and comments from the audience, as well as the process of writing jokes and reflecting on their own work, gave them new ideas and perspective on their research. And audiences reported great joy in hearing academic research presented so engagingly, in a fun setting, with a mix of different topics. Facts don’t speak for themselves – they need ambassadors. So isn’t it time we all started taking ourselves a bit less seriously?

In Search of Polar Perspectives

Perspective changes everything. Seeing things from a new angle, in a new context, can lead to some incredible realizations; just ask the astronauts who look down at our planet from orbit, seeing everything that means anything floating on an island in space. It is hard to have that perspective from close up, as author Ursula Le Guin put it:

If you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives… But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death. 

Earthrise, taken by William Anders from the Moon.

To me, this is the uncomfortable comfort of wild spaces – of the wilderness. I grew up in the high desert, where what lies between towns and cities is mainly wild and mainly not for us.  It may sound strange, but it gives me a sense of peace to be somewhere where my presence is incidental, in the grand mountains and epic skies. That landscape’s vastness was there long before I was born, and it will long outlast me. There is a temptation when we find a place with this cosmic perspective, to use it as a kind of blurred backdrop to bring our own lives into sharper focus. However, this temptation must be resisted. The wilderness is not a canvas for your projections, not a metaphor for what you have finally realized about your own life. It just is, independent of you or your narratives.

Such grand places give perspective because of their immensity – they evoke a feeling of the sublime. But this can affect people in different ways. Sometimes the sublime in nature can inspire us, make us feel that we are part of something greater than us. Other times, being such a small piece of such a large thing can inspire fear, even existential dread, as we realise our own insignificance. But we are unique among creatures in being able to perceive and witness this. I think the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen described it well:

The starry sky is the truest friend in life, when you first become acquainted; it is ever there, it gives ever peace, ever reminds you that your restlessness, your doubt, your pains are passing trivialities. The universe is and will remain unshaken. Our opinions, our struggles, or sufferings are not so important and unique, when all is said and done.

I felt this keenly two years ago when I went to the Arctic. It was incredible seeing the glaciers and the icy seas, a brutal but beautiful environment at the roof of the world. But my sense of peace was shattered by the evidence, all around us, that this wilderness was not so long-lasting as it might seem. Climate change had shrunk the glaciers from their former size, whaling had destroyed formerly huge populations of beluga whales, and even isolated beaches had plastic garbage washing up on them as litter was conveyed on the ocean currents from other parts of the planet. I’ve described these things as if they happened passively, but we humans have actively caused these changes to occur. In the past, we had the excuse of ignorance. We know now exactly what we are doing.

Arctic mountains, glaciers, beaches… and trash.

Our planet may continue to float perfectly suspended in space, a blue marble in an ocean of emptiness, but our place on it will evaporate if we continue our current course. There is a drastic need for change. This is why I am taking part in Homeward Bound, an initiative bringing together women in science to become leaders in climate action. Women are underrepresented in scientific leadership despite high ability and skills, due to patriarchal ideas which we must dismantle if we want to use the full complement of human ability. My cohort of 100 women from across the globe is currently training in visibility, strategy, and science leadership, and in November 2019 we will set sail to Antarctica.  This will be the largest female expedition to Antarctica, and there is no more appropriate place than the continent which is most affected by climate change, and which for so long was considered the sole purview of men.

The cost and the carbon footprint of travelling to Antarctica is high. Would it be better to not make the journey, to preserve the place by avoiding the carbon emissions? And more broadly, is it better to preserve wild places by leaving them be? Few naturalists have advocated for our planet’s wild places by avoiding them. But I believe the question is worth considering, and when I was in the Arctic my shipmates and I discussed this at length – if we believed that the Arctic was under threat, then what were we doing there? My own conclusion was that the trip was indeed wasteful, if I did not use it as an opportunity to raise awareness of climate change and produce broader societal value. So I wrote and spoke about the Arctic, I worked with artists to create new works about science, and stepped up my advocacy to be in line with my values. My Homeward Bound journey, similarly, must be larger than the physical trip – like an iceberg whose visible piece is but a small fraction of the whole.

Why not ask about the impact of not just our big gestures, but the smaller choices that make up our lives? What impact does our travel have, our energy consumption online, our food choices? What must I achieve to be worth my carbon footprint? What are we doing to justify this impact, or minimize it?

After coming back from the Arctic, I became vegetarian. That was the right choice for me, though others may view it differently and make their own individual choices. But we must remember that we are not acting on our own – our choices contribute to climate change, to the destruction of the planet we call home.  How will we justify them to our neighbours, to our children? Why not choose to act, in both our personal choices and our collective action toward corporations and governments?

Perspective is important, but perspective without action will not be enough. We must face our discomfort, and look for new solutions, if we are to have any hope of preserving what is sublime on our planet and in ourselves.

I am fundraising for my Homeward Bound journey; you can donate here if you want to help. 

Making Science Inclusive

It’s International Women’s Day, and people seem to find it easier to support girls than women.

I’ve noticed this as a Woman In Science, this eagerness to encourage girls into science with no concern as to what might happen to them as they, inevitably, become Women In Science. Isn’t that what we want for them, to evade the leaks in the pipeline and become role models that future girls can look up to? Don’t we want girls to become Women Who Have It All?

And yet, it’s easier to support girls than women – girls aren’t threatening. Girls aren’t competition. How else to explain the fact that, at this stage in my career, I face more sexism than I ever have before? I went off to college in 2001, at the ripe old age of 16, and you’d think things would have gotten better since then.

But when you’re part of a student cohort, or even a postdoctoral researcher or senior postdoc, you’re classed with other researchers at your level. As a PI on the other hand, running a research group, teaching undergrads, applying for funding, suddenly I am being treated worse than at any previous time in my career. Sure, it’s a demanding job, but I can’t help but notice the female junior academics around me getting saddled with heavier workloads and negative attitudes about their gender that male academics don’t have to deal with. And it doesn’t make my job easier when I can’t go to a conference without being asked ‘who do you work for?’

I have to admit I thought that as a society we’d be over this by now. Naïve student Jessamyn would have assumed there would be no need for gender quotas, in a place as progressive as a university setting, in the year 2019. Lecturer Jessamyn grimly admits that we still need them, and we have a long way to go before we are truly including everyone in higher education, and in science. Science is for everyone, regardless of gender, race, class, sexuality, or background, but it’s a lot of work to make that happen. Initiatives like the Athena SWAN and IOP Juno awards are a step in the right direction, and I’m glad to see my own institution pursuing them, but I think of them as being like the Bechdel Test – a necessary minimum, but not nearly enough to ensure true inclusion. We need to make sure that everyone is part of the story, not just the usual suspects.

Sometimes I find this tough going. I work in physics, a field with a pretty bad diversity problem, and I am used to being the only woman in the room. I wish I didn’t have so much experience being put down or disrespected, and while it may me a minority of physicists who act this way, a few consistent bad experiences can really change the environment. I sometimes wonder about the ethics of encouraging young girls into physics, having had the experiences I have: am I shepherding them into a place where they won’t be valued?

But you know, when I was an undergraduate at the cusp of either leaving physics or doubling down and pursuing a graduate education, I was lucky to end up working for an amazing physicist who I looked up to. She was an inspiration, a wonderful and supportive supervisor, and a role model whether she intended to be or not. In fact she still is – her name is Dr. Natalie Roe, and she is now the Physics Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. I’m sure she faced adversity in her career, and had experiences that differed from her male colleagues, but when I looked at her as a student I saw an incredible scientist and person, who I wanted to emulate. She paved a road for me into physics, and probably for many other young women who she mentored.

Culture change is slow, and frustrating, and in fighting injustice we often feel like we are far behind where we want to be. But I am grateful for everyone who’s pushed for change, and I hope that we can all keep paying this forward, to make science the kind of place where every girl, and every woman, is truly welcome.

Expressing Nanoscience through Dance

Growing up, I was a dancer – I performed in salsa, swing, and ballroom competitions, trained a little in ballet, and was the captain of my high school dance team. When I went off to college to study physics and math, I never imagined that I would get to bring science and dance together someday.

But in 2017, when I was selected for a science/art residency aboard a ship in the Arctic, my roommate for three weeks in close quarters was Deidre Cavazzi, a choreographer specializing in interdisciplinary dance projects. Deidre was a wonderful companion on the journey we shared, and is now a good friend, so I was delighted when she suggested that she might be able to come to Ireland during her next sabbatical to choreograph a dance piece based on my research in nanoscience. I felt really honoured, because I had seen her previous work based on things like the Fibonacci sequence and banned books and to me, the idea of translating these ideas into physical movement and shape and tempo was fascinating.

So it was very exciting when Deidre came to Galway in autumn 2018, supported by a public engagement grant from the Institute of Physics. She came to my lab, talked with me about my research, and read everything she could get her hands on about nanoelectronics and memristors and novel devices that are mimicking the brain. We got a beautiful venue courtesy of the Discipline of Drama, Theatre, and Performance at NUI Galway, and then for two nights during Science Week we invited people to a free event where I gave a short introduction to nanoscience, and then Deidre introduced a dance theatre piece that explored the same concepts, with images from my research and movement choreographed and set to music by Deidre. The full show was recorded, and you can watch it here:

Video of my talk and the dance performance that Deidre created.

One of the best things for me about this project was that Deidre asked me if I wanted to be one of the dancers! I had a wonderful time, and seeing how she brought nanoscience concepts to a whole new context was truly inspiring. You can read more about Deidre’s process on her blog here, where she describes her process and her time in Ireland. I enjoyed my collaboration with her so very much, and we are hoping to repeat it again sometime in the future! But I couldn’t actually sum up the project better than this quote, from one of our audience members:

The scientist and the choreographer had understood each other so well… I loved the blending of science and art, I think both can benefit hugely from each other as each has a unique perspective but are trying to answer similar questions.

Science Communication and Cultural Translation

I’m American, but have done most of my science communication in Ireland and the UK. That’s pretty much a fluke, a result of the fact that I didn’t have the time or confidence to pursue science communication during graduate school, and that the timing of my move to Ireland coincided with an explosion of opportunities – Soapbox Science, Pint of Science, Famelab, and of course Bright Club – for talking about science.

That means I do a lot of my science communication outside of the culture and educational system I grew up in, which can be a challenge. References, attitudes, and even just ways of talking about science are different in different places, and most places are pretty different from the science town where I grew up: Los Alamos, New Mexico.

I’ve been working with scientists in Nairobi, Kenya, to challenge myself even more. The Institute of Physics have funded me to work with the Mawazo Institute twice now, a research institute which funds and trains female African scholars in science and social science policy-relevant disciplines. I’ve helped them put on public-facing events, connect to local universities and informal science educators, and most recently returned to Nairobi to run a full day course about effective communication of research.

Working with the amazing Mawazo Fellows in Nairobi.

On my science communication walkabout, here are some of the things I’ve learned:

  • Metaphors are great but they may not translate. See for example, all my baseball and basketball metaphors (it’s a home run! a slam dunk!) that I left back in the US.
  • The slang of where you grew up is as much a sort of jargon as scientific terminology can be. Change how you talk, or at least define your terms.
  • How direct and emotive a communicator your audience expects may vary wildly between different places! This can work to your advantage or disadvantage, but at the very least you have to be aware of it.
  • Also consider the level of formality your audience expects, and be conscious about your choice to match or subvert it as this can have different meanings across cultural divides. My personal style as well as my nationality is less formal than lots of the places I end up speaking, and I have to think about what cues I can use to show I’m worth listening to.
  • And finally, consider how fast you talk! You may have been told to slow down when doing public speaking in the past, to be easily understood, but consider that fast talking will compound when people aren’t familiar with your accent (even in a country speaking your native language).

It’s a tough feeling when you move somewhere new, or go on an exciting trip to talk about science, and suddenly realise that in this new context you are not the effective communicator that you were back home. But I think that most of the skills we develop by talking about science are transferable, it just takes some thought and attention to the new context. And as always, know your audience!

Why teach physics?

To me, teaching at the university level has three specific roles:

  • Student empowerment
  • Democratization of knowledge
  • The betterment of humanity

As an educator, my job is first and foremost to empower students by helping them to learn, access information, and create new knowledge. This process is inherently democratic as it is meant to equalize access to knowledge, so that any student can learn any subject regardless of their gender, race, socioeconomic status, or other factors which they cannot control. Empowering individual students in this way leads to a society that contains more and more well-informed, competent and capable individuals, who will use their knowledge and talents to contribute to the betterment of the human condition. My teaching is meant to be a public good.

The author closing TEDxTUM 2017. Photo by Wade Million.

This may seem like an obvious, if lofty goal. However, there are challenges which must be addressed, especially in the teaching of science generally and physics more specifically. Physics requires not only topical knowledge and strong math skills, but also critical thinking and problem solving, which can at first seem at odds with the way that many students have prepared themselves for the Leaving Cert. In the Irish context, teaching first year physics, I try to help students transition from a rote learning mentality to embrace more complex modes of understanding. I must also address a common fallacy about science, that it is a collection of facts. Showing students how these facts are connected, and that science is a creative endeavour at heart, is needed to progress their understanding.

There is also an elitism around physics, sometimes perpetuated by physicists themselves, that must be broken down. Physics relies on math in a way that few other subjects do, and while math is essential to understanding physical concepts, many students experience ‘math anxiety’ that must be addressed. Using language, demonstrations, and math together helps students cement the basic concepts. Studies have shown that the use of humour in lectures also aids students to remember information better, which comes as little surprise to me after my experience running Bright Club.

A talk I gave about using humour to communicate tough topics.

Often, whether or not students choose to pursue a topic depends not so much on the topic itself as on their own identity: whether or not they can see themselves in physics, whether they ‘fit in’. My own experience growing up surrounded by scientists helped show me what a scientific career looked like and how to access it. But students without this background need more from their instructors: to see scientists as real people, to understand the steps to a scientific career and where it can lead them. This is especially important for women and other underrepresented minorities, who are still sorely needed in physics. Even if the students who take my classes choose not to study physics, I aim to leave them with a solid understanding and positive attitude toward physics, to understand that physics is a way to understand the world around us, and an important part of everything we do.

I do my best to actively engage students in lectures, problem-solving, and laboratory, remembering that people often say that you cannot teach anyone physics, but empower them to learn it themselves. My role is to find as many ways as there are students to present the information and connective ideas of physics. I am inspired in this by my own undergraduate physics mentor, Richard Muller at the University of California Berkeley, who was famous as a teacher for his course Physics for Future Presidents. He understood that everyone, not just future physicists, will benefit from a solid understanding of physics, and designed a seminar style course focused more on interesting and relevant science topics rather than historical sequences of discovery. I take the liberal arts view that physics is for everyone, the same way literature is for everyone.

My aim as a teacher is not merely to get as many people as possible to study physics. It is to improve engagement, understanding, and attitudes toward physics, which is a central science of relevance to every single person. I want to empower students to understand physics, improve their access to that knowledge and understanding of how it is connected, and help scientists and non-scientists alike to work for the betterment of humanity. This makes better physicists, but it also makes better people.

The World’s Smallest Movie

One of the most incredible movies ever made is this stop-motion animated film, made by moving carbon monoxide molecules around on the surface of copper at IBM. It’s incredible to think that when we look at this, we are seeing quantum mechanics – bonding at the nanoscale, and echoes of the wave nature of reality.

There is a short documentary that explains how the movie was made, manipulating the molecules with scanning tunnelling microscopy, which is also worth a watch: